Monday, July 25, 2005

Operating systems

This weekend we bought Leigh a new laptop. It's your basic inexpensive laptop from HP.

From a hardware perspective, it is pretty amazing what you can get in a laptop for $650 these days: a fast processor, lots of RAM, a big hard disk, high-speed wireless networking, a nice screen, a DVD-RW drive, etc.

Plus it comes with a hardware warrantee, including 14-days "if anything goes wrong" protection and a 1-year parts and labor warrantee. The basic message is, "if we have sold you hardware that does not function properly, it is our fault, and we will fix the problem for you."

The same is not true of the operating system, and you see that when you open HP's "Getting Started" guide. What starts on page 3 is the "Protect your notebook" section. It really is quite sad.

Part one of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about viruses. It opens with this encouraging sentence: "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, you expose the notebook to computer viruses. Computer viruses can disable your operating system, applications or utilities, or cause them to function abnormally." The reason for this vulnerability is a poorly designed operating system. And, unlike the hardware, if something goes wrong it is YOUR problem, not the manufacturer's. To protect the operating system, you must purchase and install another piece of virus checking software, and then keep updating it every day. Even if you spend all of that time and money, things can still go wrong. If so, too bad for you. Neigher Microsoft or the virus software company will take any responsibility or do anything to help you.

Part two of the "Protect your notebook" section talks about protecting your system files. These files are essential to the operating system, but the operating system does not protect them at all. Therefore you have to keep track of them yourself. If you ever screw up, your operating system and all of its data can be irretrievably destroyed. The manual advises, "It is recommended that you manually set restore point before you add or extensively modify hardware or software. Also, you should create restore points periodically, whenever the system is performing optimally." Optimal performance, apparently, is a rare event.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section, it talks about protecting your privacy. The manual says, "When you use your notebook for e-mail, network or Internet access, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your notebook and your data." Imagine if your bank said, "When you use this bank for normal banking stuff, it is possible for unauthorized persons to obtain information about your account and your data." The bank would be sued into oblivion. Not so with the operating system – it is so poorly designed that it is an open book. And that is YOUR problem. You have to "keep your operating system updated" and you must "use a firewall" to try to guard against these problems with the operating system.

Next up in the "Protect your notebook" section is a discussion about turning your notebook off properly. The operating system is so poorly designed that even the simple act of turning off your notebook (or, heaven forbid, the power goes off or the battery dies) can destroy the operating system. You are supposed to use a "standard Windows Shutdown Procedure." One would imagine, in a normal world, that the operating system would be able to handle something as common as "turning off the machine" or "experiencing a power failure" with complete indifference. But no, you can actually harm the machine by turning it off unexpectedly.

So let's say that you are willing to use the Windows Shutdown Procedure. Even this is so unreliable that the manual feels the need to address its unreliability. It says, "If your notebook does not respond (to the Windows Shutdown Procedure), try the following shutdown procedures." Then if THAT doesn't work, you are supposed to give up, cross your fingers and "press and hold the power/standby button for 5 seconds."

Note that the manual does not talk about backing up your data or spyware – two other aberrations that will waste a tremendous amount of your time as well because the operating system is so unreliable.

Then, if that is not enough, nearly the entire back half of the manual is devoted to an appendix called "System Recovery". It has sections like, "Repairing and reinstalling applications", "Repairing the operating system", "Reinstalling the operating system", Reinstalling device drivers and other software" and "Updating reinstalled software". In other words, even if you try to do everything asked of you in the "Protecting your notebook" section, shit will still happen and you will probably need to erase your hard drive and start over. In the process you will lose all of your applications, settings and data.

It is unbelievable that, in the 21st century, our operating systems are this fragile, and that it is so easy to completely destroy the operating system through no fault of your own. Just using your computer in normal ways opens you to a dozen serious vulnerabilities.

See also:


Saturday, July 16, 2005


This weekend is a typical weekend in the Brain household, and a good part of it is spent cleaning. "Cleaning" means sweeping and mopping the floors; scrubbing the bathrooms; vacuuming the carpets; helping the kids put away their puzzles, games, train sets, dinosaurs, dolls, cars, trucks, etc.; changing the linens; and generally straightening.

Then you add to that the normal daily cleaning chores like doing the dishes, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, putting stuff away, etc.

And what you find is that the average American household wastes a ridiculous amount of time every week cleaning. 20 hours per week is not an unreasonable estimate of total cleaning time here at the Brain household. Keep in mind that we have four kids, but I'd bet even a childless household spends an average of 10 hours per week.

This is extremely sad because:
  1. If you take 20 hours a week and multiply by 52, you get 1,040 hours of wasted time per year. If you got paid $10 per hour for that time, it represents over $10,000 in wasted time per year -- Roughly 20 man-weeks of totally useless time.

  2. The work of cleaning has absolutely zero redeeming value. Cleaning is a TOTAL waste of time.
There are approximately 100 million households in America. If each one wastes 10 hours a week on laundry, dishes, sweeping, scrubbing and so on, that is 52 billion hours a year wasted. If that time is worth $10 an hour, that's $500 billion in wasted time every year. It is a shocking, staggering amount of totally wasted effort.

Within 20 years -- 30 years at the most -- robots will do all of this cleaning work for most people. That's why people in 2050 will look back at us in the same way that we look at people in the 1800's. In the 1800's, folks were so primitive that they were milking their own cows by hand, churning their own butter by hand, making their own soap by hand, picking and weaving their own cotton by hand and so on.

No "normal" American living today in an urban or suburban environment can imagine milking a cow or churning butter by hand. This is incredibly primitive labor in today's society. In the same way, no one in 2050 will be able to imagine the incredible amount of time that we waste cleaning today. They will laugh out loud when we tell them about getting down on our hands and knees to personally clean each toilet.